La Pirogue: Cannes Review
Moussa Touré's drama chronicles a group of West African immigrants who attempt a hazardous illegal crossing to mainland Europe.
Illuminating the desperate and moving human stories behind lurid headlines about illegal immigration, La Pirogue is a colorful and compelling drama about a boat full of would-be economic migrants attempting the perilous weeklong Atlantic crossing from Senegal to mainland Europe. Capably directed by Moussa Touré, a sometime politician and bittersweet chronicler of his country’s social woes in several previous dramas and documentaries, this Un Certain Regard entry at Cannes is dedicated to the 5000 or so Africans who have died trying to cross to Europe in the last decade.
Named after the brightly painted wooden fishing vessel that serves as the film’s non-human star, La Pirogue has the feeling of an issue-driven TV movie at times. It should do well in Francophone territories, where West African immigration has a strong colonial back story. Foreign interest will be limited, but this universal story could easily serve as a dramatically gripping primer on topical immigration issues to schoolchildren across the globe, from Arizona to Afghanistan.
Baye Laye (Souleymane Seye Ndiaye) is an experienced fisherman and family man who is being forced by economic and moral pressures to reluctantly captain a refugee boat for a Dakar-based people-smuggling operation. After some tense negotiation, Baye Laye and his human cargo of around 30 souls set out from Senegal in a mood of strained optimism. Predictably, their crossing soon becomes a nightmarish ordeal.
A female stowaway (Mame Astou Diallo) causes friction among the otherwise all-male group, while minor tensions simmer across ethnic and religious divisions. Passengers sicken and die, others are washed overboard in storms. A harrowing encounter with another pirogue, floating on the high seas without food or power, becomes an ominous portent. Soon Laye’s boat itself suffers a similar fate, its engines shutting down, its course pulled out into the mid Atlantic by powerful ocean currents. The vessel begins to drift - and so, alas, does the plot.
Handsomely shot in fairly conventional style by a mixed Senegalese and French crew, La Pirogue is a well-crafted melodrama in classic issue-movie mold. The cast are capable, the dramatic conflict punchy, and the soundtrack sprinkled with the pretty, sinewy, laidback sounds of Senegal, a nation rightly famous for its vibrant music scene. The divided psyche of a young generation of Africans torn between traditional values and the consumerist whirl of iPhones and satellite television is also nicely evoked, without heavy-handed First World moralizing.
The film’s flaws lie in its predictable narrative arc and too many sketchy, two-dimensional characters. Immigration tales have been told on screen countless times before, often with more subtlety and depth than this. But the urgency of the subject in these straitened economic times lend Touré’s local story an extra kick of topical, universal power.
Venue: Cannes film festival, Un Certain Regard screening, May 20
Production companies: Rezo Films, Les Chauves-Souris, Astou Films, Arte France Cinema, Appaloosa Films, Royal Pony Film, Studio 37 production
Cast: Souleymane Seye Ndiaye, Laity Fall, Malamine Drame “Yalenguen,” Balla Diarra, Salif “Jean” Diallo, Babacar Oualy, Mame Astou Diallo, Saikou Lo, Ngalgou Diop
Director: Moussa Touré Producers: Eric Névé, Omar Sy, Adrien Maigne
Director of photography: Thomas Letellier
Screenplay: Eric Névé and David Bouchet, based on an original story by Abasse Ndione
Music: Prince Ibrahima Ndour Sales agent: Memento Rating TBC, 87 minutes
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